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Summary: Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill, 2019

The bill defines the term publication, provides information on who can operate one, and identifies a Press Registrar General who can issue, verify, and revoke registrations of newspapers. 

The draft Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill, 2019 was put out for public comment in November 2019. The bill was introduced to set up a new regime of registration of newspapers and digital media. While public comments had a deadline of Christmas 2019, the government never announced any progress on the bill. MediaNama has filed for records with the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to ascertain the current status of the bill.

Although parts of the government’s digital news regulation agenda — outlined in a Group of Ministers’ report on government outreach — has been achieved by the Information Technology (Intermediary Liability and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, the RPP Bill has once again assumed importance for two reasons.

First, Hindustan Times has reported, citing an unnamed and unclear number of government officials, that a new “umbrella law” was in the works to regulate all of the news media across formats. Second, the legal footing of the IT Rules has come under scrutiny, with the Bombay High Court staying provisions requiring digital media organisations to self-regulate. That judgement has said that the Rules exceed the remit of subordinate legislation, giving the government all the more reason to achieve its objectives with a fresh act, perhaps one that will draw from elements of the IT Rules and the RPP Bill.

Summary

Objectives: The Bill seeks to

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  • Remove provisions from the law on the registration of books “and matters connected thereto;”
  • Do away with the requirement that publishers and printers furnish a declaration to their district magistrate;
  • Centralise the “process of title and registration of periodicals including newspapers” under the Press Registrar General, an office that is currently called the Registrar of Newspapers for India;
  • Enable State and Central governments to frame rules and regulations to determine eligibility of a periodical for government ads;
  • Have a system of registration of e-papers;
  • Do away with the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867

Definitions

The following are select definitions from the Bill:

  • “appropriate governments” administering provisions of the bill are either central, state or union territory governments.
  • “authorised person” means a Gazetted officer subordinate to the Press Registrar General.
  • an “editor” is an Indian citizen who is “responsible for the selection and finalization of the content of a periodical”.
  • “news on digital media” is defined as ” the news in digitized format that can be transmitted over the internet, computer or mobile networks and includes text, audio, video and graphics”.
  • a “publication” is anything that is printed on paper in the form of a periodical, a newspaper or a book.
  • a “specified authority” is a District Magistrate or other such senior official in local administration.

Printing presses and publications

  • Furnishing of information: Any person who is running a printing press is required (such as a “keeper” who is charged with running a press) to “furnish an intimation” to the district magistrate or other such authority. The printer is to file an annual statement outlining details of their activity in that financial year, “containing such particulars and in such manner as may be prescribed”.
  • No terrorists or foreign nationals: Any person may “bring out a publication,” provided they’re Indian citizens, or not “convicted by any court for an offence involving terrorist act or unlawful activity,” or “for having done anything against the security of the State”.

The Press Registrar General

The government will appoint a Press Registrar General (PRG) and officers under this official’s purview, who will perform the following duties:

  1. Issue registration certificate to publications
  2. Verify newspapers’ circulation figures
  3. Revoke, revise or suspend a periodical’s registration
  4. Requisition officers to serve under them
  5. Call for “records, documents and such other information” from a publication
  6. To “have access to any relevant record or document relating to a periodical in the possession of the publisher or printer thereof,” along with powers to “enter at any reasonable time any premise where he believes such record or document to be and where the periodical is being printed and may inspect or take copies of the relevant records or documents or ask any question necessary for obtaining any information required to be furnished” under the Bill’s requirements

Registration of Periodicals

The registration of periodicals has the following process laid out:

  • Every owner of a periodical should obtain a registration certificate from the PRG by submitting documents as may be prescribed.
    • The application form should contain a unique title for the periodical, with any alternatives, conforming to the PRG’s guidelines.
    • The PRG shall forward the application to the local “specified authority” for a no-objection or a registration “preferably” within 60 days.
  • The PRG will vet the application, and issue a registration certificate “preferably” within 60 days. Refusal of certification can only be provided with reasons recorded in writing after providing a hearing to the owner of the periodical.
  • After receiving the certificate, the owner of the publication should start publishing within three months. If they don’t publish within twelve months, the registration may be cancelled
  • Certificates can be revised or transferred after approaching the PRG. If a periodical ceases publication, the owner shall intimate the local authority and the PRG within six months. The PRG will then cancel the registration and strike it off its register.
  • Restarting a periodical can be done by filing a fresh application.
  • Cancellation of registration by a PRG can be done if the periodical is in contravention of the Bill, or if it was registered under false representations or “concealment of any material fact”. It can also be cancelled if it stops publishing for more than twelve months, or publishes less than three-fourths of what it said it would publish, or if wrong details have been given in the Annual Statement required to be submitted. It can also be cancelled if the publisher is convicted of a terrorist or unlawful activity, or if they have done something against the security of the state.

Annual statement default: If a publisher does not comply with the requirement to furnish an annual report, they may be fined up to Rs 10,000, aside from the risk of cancellation outlined above. If they provide false particulars, the fine may extend up to Rs 50,000.

Penalties

  • Publication without compliance: Without complying with this law, if anyone publishes a periodical, they can be punishable with a fine up to Rs 50,000.
  • Printing Press provisions: If a printing press is established and run without intimations outlined above, this shall invite a fine and “penal action”; no ceiling amount is specified for the fine.

Appeal

  • PRAB to be established: The Press and Registration Appellate Board would be established, consisting of the chair of the Press Council of India and one member to be nominated by the PCI from its members. Anyone can appeal orders of penalties or refusal of registration to the PRAB within sixty days of such order being communicated to them.
  • Appeal procedure: Appeals can be entertained after a sixty-day window if the PRAB is satisfied that the “appellant was prevented [from appealing] by sufficient cause”. The PRAB can after calling for records deliberate, run further inquiries, and modify or set aside the order.

Government ads and digital news

State and central governments may prescribe conditions for which periodicals they issue government ads for.

“The publishers of news on Digital Media shall register themselves with the Registrar of Newspapers of India in such manner and giving such particulars as may be prescribed,” the law says for digital media organizations, without elaborating.

Miscellaneous

  • Powers of central government: The PRB shall be bound by policy as set out by the government. The decision of the Central Government on whether a “question is one of policy or not” shall be final.
  • Action in good faith: If PRB and officers are performing any action “in good faith,” then they and the government shall be protected from legal proceedings.
  • Rules under the law: The central government may notify subordinate legislation under this law on its own. These Rules can include, among other things:
    • form and fees of an application for registration
    • particulars of registration of periodicals
    • the form of the certificate of registration issued by the PRB
    • the particulars and form of the annual statement
    • manner in which verification of circulation figures is to be done
    • “any other matter which is required to be, or may be, prescribed”
  • Removing difficulties: If an issue arises from the provisions of the act, the central government can publish an order in the gazette to “make such provisions not inconsistent with the provisions of this Act.” But such orders would have to be made within three years of this act being passed.
  • Repeal of PRB Act, 1867: The Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 would be repealed. However, any proceedings under that act that are consistent with the requirements in this bill shall continue, including granted registrations. That transfer applies for “any declaration, including title thereof,” “any proceeding pending in any court,” and for officials under the regime set up by the older act. The PRAB constituted under the previous Act can continue, and any penalty under the previous act can still be recovered.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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